PROFILE: John Santa

Bluegrass is My Second Language:
A Year in the Life of an Accidental Bluegrass Musician

John Santa admits he can’t tell a short story. His 512-page tome—complete with two books, stunning photography, and a section of sheet music—is evidence enough of that. But Santa has a great story to tell, and it isn’t just about bluegrass; it’s more about family, love, and friendship, all woven with the pluckings of his beloved Appalachian music. Reading Santa’s book is like having a chat with him; his down home, folksy prose brings to mind sharing a cup of coffee with a good friend you have only just met. BRO recently caught up with Santa at his home in Chapel Hill, N.C., to chat about his book, the near undeniable power of music, and what he calls “the blessings of the strings.”

BRO: Early in your book, you write that music is the great common denominator. In your travels through your year as a bluegrass musician, tell me how you came to believe that.

JS: There’s a great story in the glossary of the book about me playing cello at a beach house. This young girl hears the cello, comes running up the stairs, and she tells me that she plays the violin. She ends up running across the street and getting her violin. We played for a while, and then we played together every day she was at the beach. That’s what I am talking about; music just cuts across everything. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what you look like, or what color you are. There’s something in our chromosomes; there’s something in our synapses as human beings, that really resonates with music. There’s a line in a song I wrote called “High Lonesome Strings” that reads, “I never met a stranger who carried a guitar,” and it is absolutely true.

BRO: Your book is full of stories about just that.

JS: It’s amazing. Music has enriched my life in so many ways: as a catharsis, as an expression, as an emotional outlet. It has also touched my life in that I have played down at the beach and people will just come up and talk to me because I play the cello or dobro on the front porch of my house. All of the normal social conventions go right out the window. You would never approach someone, a total stranger, but there is just something about music. My life is much richer because of the people that music has brought to my life.

BRO: This isn’t just a book about you playing music—you open yourself up to your readers, especially when discussing your dad’s struggles with Parkinson’s Disease. Was there any trepidation as you bared your soul during the writing process?

JS: Yes, there is trepidation about doing that, to an extent. When I was writing this thing, I didn’t know who was going to be reading this book, but I felt they were all gathered around me. I needed to give them two things—value, which is why I tried to make the book really gorgeous, and that’s also why it’s so long. The other important thing was that I wanted to tell the truth. I had predicated so much about telling the truth in music that when I got to Book Two and dug into this stuff, I had to stay true to the terms I had struck with the reader. When it got down to the time of some heavy stuff, I had a choice of either fictionalizing it or telling the truth. I felt like I had made a deal with the reader, and the deal needed to be complete. Otherwise, the book would fall apart. I also knew that there were other people going through the same things, and I thought my stories would be helpful.

BRO: I was ready to read a book about bluegrass, but I ended up reading a lot more about love and friendship. For you, are those the true blessings of the strings?

JS: Oh gosh, yes. The bluegrass is just a pretext for all of this other stuff; it’s really about people and places. It’s about dogs, teachers, and how one seemingly small incident can change your life. The book really does seem to touch people. The bluegrass is just a unifying principle.

If you get really lucky on your next trip through North Carolina, you just might catch John and his buddies picking together at Chapel Hill haunts like Brown’s, Jimmy’s Shop, or anywhere else they happen to open their cases. You can read more about John Santa and his book at www.bluegrassbook.com.
—Dave Stallard